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Can a New Wave of Identitarian Politics in Assam Topple BJP in Coming Assembly Polls?

This the first of a two-part series on identitarian politics in Assam and its implications for the upcoming Assembly polls as new parties and fresh alliances enter the fray.
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Although Assam has been a witness to the dominance of one national party or another, a strong sense of regionalism and identitarian politics shapes the core of the state’s electoral politics. That’s because, preservation of ethnic identity through social coalitions has always been supported by the-big-and-strong national parties, such as both Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to win the Assembly polls in the state; besides, Asom Gana Parishad's (AGP) two-term electoral wins in 1985 and 1996 mark an era of identity politics itself to be capable of winning the polls.

Ahead of the 2021 Assam Assembly polls, the ruling BJP now faces a strong anti-incumbency as well as another wave of identitarian movements led by the newly formed parties — Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP) and Raijor Dal — amid war cries against the infamous Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 or CAA, passed in the parliament by the saffron party. This brings forth the question of whether BJP's political-Hindutva-plus-development plank can help them sweep the polls, or is it the politics of identity, once again raised by the people of Assam, that would win.

Ups and Downs of Regional Politics in Assam

In Assam, identitarian politics finds its roots in the anti-Bengali sentiments of the Assamese people in general. Bengali Muslims from the then East Bengal region had been brought in Assam to cultivate the riverine tracts of the Brahmaputra in different stages between early and mid-19th century, while a middle class of Bengali Hindus came along as British servants in the mid-19th century, facts which are well-known by now. Muslim peasants were, at a later phase, offered contractual ownership of lands, and this lured more Muslims peasants to Assam. This agitated the Assamese population, and besides, more Bengali Hindu and Muslims allegedly came after the Independence of Bangladesh in 1971. These factors fuelled the Assamese even more; thus, a frenzy grasped them in the form of the Assam movement in the early 1980s, which led to thousands of Bengalis being killed, and eventually the Assam Accord was signed between the Government of India and All Assam Student's Union (AASU) in 1985, the leaders of which later created a party called Asom Gana Parishad (AGP).

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In 1985 itself, AGP came into power with a whopping majority by beating the decades-long Congress legacy. The AGP government, however, failed to fulfil the Assamese aspirations, and fell flat in front of the Congress in the next Assembly polls amid heavy allegations of corruption. It beat the Congress again in 1996, but again lost the game owing to allegations of secret killings and corruptions both.

However, this is just one dimension of Assam's socio-political landscape. There has been recurring tensions between different ethnic groups within the state as well. Religion, nationality, ethnicity, language — all have their respective shares in shaping the complex dynamics of Assam's politics.

Congress, until 1960s, had managed to create a social coalition, popularly called the Ali-Coolie-and-Bengali coalition, to win the polls apart from its use of charismatic regional players-cum-freedom fighters. Ali stands for Muslims, Coolie for Bihari labourers, while the Bengalis are the simply the Hindu Bengalis living in both Brahmaputra and Barak valley. Some of the charismatic Assamese leaders, such as the state’s first CM Gopinath Bordoloi, who sparked a controversy in 1947 by saying that the newly formed state's policy will be — Assam is for Assamese — which eventually led to communities such as the Khasis to demand their own state Meghalaya, created in 1969; Mizoram was curved out of Assam in 1972, Nagaland in 1963, while movements rose such as the United Reservation Movement Council of Assam (URMCA), a conglomeration of various organisations representing tribal, linguistic and religious identities against the caste Assamese. Noted Assamese intellectual Hiren Gohain termed it a "leftist movement" but a casteist one too, and that it "had complicated things". However, most view it as a necessary anti-ULFA (The United Liberation Front of Asom) leftist movement.

After the URMCA movement died down, the Congress went back to its tested formula of Ali-Coolie-and Bengali, but adding a new tune too by creating autonomous councils one after another. Nonetheless, it could not satisfy all tribes living in either the plains or the hills. Meanwhile, the Congress governments, both at the Centre and the state, fell prey to BJP's Hindutva politics; thus, the grand old party lent itself towards luring Hindu voters too, especially the Assamese and Bengalis, but at the cost of huge corruption. So, it was the BJP that finally came to power in Assam on its development plank and by mixing the Assamese sentiment and Hindutva in 2016--they used Assamese war cries such as calling the polls "the Last Battle of Saraighat” and invoking the Saraighat Batttle hero Lachit Borphukan as a Hindutva icon.

However, after coming to power, BJP tried to get the infamous Citizenship Amendment Bill passed in Parliament in the midst of huge Assamese uproar against the alleged influx of Hindu Bengalis. When eventually, the bill was passed in to become a law, CAA, the Assamese war cry against the BJP emerged, such as "CAA ami na manu" — meaning “we don't want CAA.” Subsequently, when BJP managed to create a social coalition just like the Congress, albeit in a better manner, it won almost all 12 autonomous tribal councils of Assam, including the recently held Bodoland Territorial Council. Following this, three new parties have been launched in the state ahead of the Assembly polls due early this year —the AJP and the Raijor Dal on the one hand — while noted Assamese journalist Ajit Kumar Bhuyan, who got elected as a Rajya Sabha MP in 2020 with the support of the Congress and All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), created another party, the Anchalik Gana Morcha.

The Congress, AIUDF and Morcha, along with almost all leftist parties in the state, including the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI(M)] and CPI Marxist-Leninist (Liberation), have announced a grand alliance right ahead of the 2021 Assam polls on January 19. However, the AJP and Raijor Dal are decisive about not joining hands with any national parties, despite their common goal with the Morcha and the grand alliance to topple the BJP from power. Interestingly, AJP chose as its president ex-AASU general secretary Lurinjyoti Gogoi, while the Raijor Dal president is the jailed Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) leader Akhil Gogoi, with noted Assamese scholar-activist Hiren Gohain as their chief advisor.

Now, the big question is: while BJP has managed to peg the United People's Party Liberal (UPPL) and Gana Suraksha Party (GSP) after AGP almost getting merged with BJP, with former AGP-leader-turned BJP-key man Sarbananda Sonowal as the Assam CM, will the regional parties such as the AJP and Raijor Dal can actually topple the BJP from the power, or will the grand alliance do it? NewsClick sought answers from both newly formed parties as well as some neutral voices. A newly formed party called Barak Democratic Front (BDF), from Assam's Bengali zone Barak valley, also expressed their views.

POLITICS OF IDENTITY TO PLAY MAJOR ROLE: AJP PRESIDENT

Asked whether the space for identatarian politics is shrinking because of the AGP and other such regional parties' yielding to the BJP's power politics, AJP President Lurinjyoti Gogoi said he thought otherwise. "Definitely, some space have been occupied by regional politics in Assam for a long time, and it's the need of the hour that through politics of identity, we can achieve our goal as we live in a federal structure,” he said, continuing, “Recently, democracy has totally collapsed due to the type of ethics or type of policy that was driven by the BJP and Congress. Therefore, definitely the politics to establish the identity, to establish the right of the common people, the indigenous people or the local people, is essential for the better future of a state, or the identity, language, culture and civilisations. We believe that regional politics or the politics related to the identity of the common people, will play a very major role in Assam."

PEOPLE REALISED NECESSITY OF REGIONAL POLITICS: RAIJOR DAL

Asked whether a coalition only between AJP and Raijor Dal would be able to topple the BJP from the power in the state, Raijor Dal General Secretary Lohit Gogoi said, "The people have realised the necessity of regional politics in Assam, and I can feel that now. If you talk about the Bodoland People's Front (BPF), or other regional parties, there has been a vacuum in Assam’s regional politics. Although AGP was there, they couldn’t take the regional issues of Assam to the national level. In a way, they could never become regional political forces in reality. They have succumbed to the national parties for their personal gains.” Gogoi further said although the characteristic of regionalism that had once been there in the AGP, gradually the party “got merged with the nationalistic ideology of the BJP.” To fill in this vacuum left by the AGP in regional politics, said Gogoi, “A political party has been created, and that is Raijor Dal, which means people’s party."

While both AJP and Raijor Dal have so far denied any pre-poll alliance with the Congres-AIUDF-Morcha-Left, regarding uniting themselves, both parties have confirmed the possibility. They have either said "the talk is going on about seat sharing” or that "to defeat the communal parties, such as BJP and AIUDF, all regional parties, keeping aside their ideological differences, will emerge as a new regional coalition ahead of the assembly polls."

BARAK VALLEY AND ITS NEW PARTY

It is mainly the Assamese-dominated parties that have decided to form a coalition so far in terms of identitarian politics in the Brahmaputra valley. Meanwhile, as a counter movement, a completely Barak Valley-based political party called the BDF has been formed by a few politicians and intellectuals. BDF President Pradip Duttaray, once a Congress leader, then a BJP man eventually expelled out of the party, now one of the founders of the BDF, said that the reason why he felt the need to form the BDF was “only for the socioeconomic development of Barak Valley, and the deprivation of the people of Barak valley."

"We’ve found the BDF in Barak Valley — because either BJP or Congress or AGP — all political parties have failed to fulfil the aspirations of the people of Barak Valley. The youth are deprived from jobs; it’s a burning issue for the valley. There are two lakhs registered unemployed youths in the valley. There are so many students who are passing their master’s degrees from the Assam Central University, and are now unemployed. In view of this situation, we have started to form and decided to put our candidates in the fray of coming Assembly elections in all 15 seats in the valley," added the veteran leader from the valley.

Incidentally, the BJP government has failed to revive the only large industry, a paper mill owned by the state-run Hindustan Paper Corporation Limited (HPCL) in the valley. The area has had experienced alleged Assamese aggression multiple times since the 1961 Bengali Language Movement to the early 1980s. The burn is still alive as the valley's people recently wanted to rename Silchar railway station as “Bhasha Shahid Station", in the memory of the 11 language martyrs of the valley, a promise the BJP government is yet to fulfil. So the feeling of deprivation is obvious, on which the BDF is banking now. Howeve, political pundits such as Arup Baisya, the author of the critically acclaimed book, Disruptions in Economic and Social Polity: What Is to be Done?, felt that the BDF "might have only a political impact to marginally hamper the prospect of the BJP."

With big players such as the BJP, Congress and perfume tycoon Badruddin Ajmal's party AIUDF having a whopping amount of funds to spend in the polls, it is surely going to be tough for isolated players to find a fair game in the fray. In such a situation, talking to NewsClick, Congress leader cum opposition leader in the Assam Assembly, Debabrata Saikia, urged AJP and Raijor Dal by saying, "We, the more the merrier, are always telling them to choose the enemy number one (the BJP) as target number one too. So our appeal is still open to them, but we are not sure; yet, as there’s still time, the opposition should not stand as a divided force."

As of now, all the big players in the opposition are now in an alliances. But as the AJP has its backing from AASU and AJYCP and Raijor Dal has support from 70 other organisations, they are also forces to reckon with. However, in the face of an well-organised party such as the BJP, with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and other Hindutva forces backing it, Assam's own game of thrones is likely to be a tough one for any coalition unless all opposition parties are united; as Congress leader Saikia said, "the more, the merrier" it is.

The writer is an independent content management consultant based in Assam.

(In Part Two of this two-part series, we will try finding out the core of the strengths of each party in the fray of Assam assembly polls 2021, as well as what the political pundits have to say about the neo-identitarian politics of Assam.)

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